Warren I. Cohen is Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Consulting Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Korea may not have found its place in the sun just yet, but it has reached the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. As I write, Hwang Jang Yop, one of the principal architects of the North Korean political system, sits in the South Korean embassy in Beijing, an apparent defector. A man who had slipped out of the North 15 years before, said to be the nephew of a wife or paramour of Northern leader Kim Jong Il, has been gunned down in Seoul, allegedly the victim of a hit man sending a message to would-be defectors. Scandal laps at the feet of South Korean President Kim Young Sam as his friends and aides are arrested in a case involving the collapse of the giant Hanbo Steel Company and the loans and bribes that had kept it afloat. Labor unrest seethes in the South as President Kim and his party attempt to keep down wages to maintain their country's competitiveness in world markets. For Americans, questions about the possibility of famine and collapse in North Korea, Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, and the possibility of war on the peninsula loom over the immediate drama.
But most Americans are as ignorant about Korea as their leaders were in 1945 when they first ordered U.S. troops there. American policy toward Korea between 1945 and 1950 was disastrous, contributing to the division of a people and the precipitation of full-scale war between the Northern and Southern regimes in 1950. During the war, the Truman administration, having intervened to save the South from communism, suffered a catastrophic dose of "mission creep," seeing battlefield success as an opportunity to destroy Kim Il Sung's regime and reunify Korea under a noncommunist, perhaps even democratic, government. The ensuing conflict with the Chinese "volunteers" who came to Kim's rescue probably cost several million lives.
For the next 35 years or so, American presidents, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, were occupied with containing communism in the Cold War against
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